By Richard Varr
There’s something particularly enchanting about the walled city at low tide. Beach sand now exposed to the summer sun glistens with tints of green from algae lacing rocky ledges. I look out from atop Saint-Malo’s stone ramparts to see clear walkways and jagged pathways to rock-strewn outcrops and grassy land masses – some with forts – that were islands just a few hours earlier.
It’s easy to walk the beach amidst the fishy smells of sea critters and up a rocky promenade to the 18th century Fort National, where surf at high tide crashes just below the fort’s gated entrance. I see shimmering algae-rimmed pools forming a trickling waterfall of sorts draining back into the sea. And from this vantage point, you can’t miss the sweeping view of St. Malo with its towering ramparts encircling the old city.
“It’s one of the most beautiful sights when sailing into St. Malo Bay,” says Corinne, our tour guide. “At high tide you can see the tops of the reef and castles offshore protected by fortresses. And as the water gets shallower, you’re sailing over a light green emerald sea. It’s absolutely stunning.”
St. Malo is named after the 6th century Welsh monk Maclou, one of the first inhabitants of what was then only a peninsula. “Originally this was just a little rocky island out in the bay. The reason people moved here 1,000 years ago was to escape attacks from Vikings raiding the coastline,” says Corinne. “Nowadays, our little city island is only about 60 acres, and we’re completely surrounded by the city walls, a mile-and-a-quarter around.”
The town flourished from the 16th to 19th centuries, bolstered by fishing and trading. During the 17th century, St. Malo was France’s largest port and home to privateers or corsairs approved by the king – not pirates, as locals will insist to this day. “Privateering was legal in times of war – it’s a point of honor,” says Corinne. “We were never pirates. We only attacked to help France in the war effort.”
Inside the city walls are narrow cobbled streets lined with 18th century buildings now housing shops, restaurants and crêperies. Near the city’s main gate, we walk down rue Jacques Cartier, the street along the city wall with pubs and eateries. “It’s called ‘Thirsty Street,’” exclaims Corinne. “That’s because it was the first street sailors came to as soon as they walked off the ships.”
We also visit the 18th century home once owned by François-Auguste Magon de la Lande, a privateer, merchant and one of St. Malo’s most powerful ship owners of that period. With 52 rooms and 35 fireplaces, upstairs floors housed noblemen wanting to see their ships from above the city walls, while a stone stairwell spirals down into narrow passageways and storage rooms below sea level.
Other sights include St. Vincent’s Cathedral with its impressive stained glass window, and the 15th century castle with City Hall, a history museum and towers leading up to two lookout platforms. But what I enjoy most is strolling the quiet streets and walking the ramparts with its ocean views – especially at sunset. “Most people in the restaurants and little boutiques will go out of your way to help you,” says Corinne. “That’s the way it’s been for centuries.”
IF YOU GO
For More Information:
Hotel La Maison des Armateurs www.maisondesarmateurs.com
I stayed at this comfortable four-star hotel just within the city gate and stairs leading up to the ramparts, and only a couple minutes walk from St. Vincent’s Cathedral.
Restaurant and Bars Suggestions:
Restaurant Le 5 – with a wonderful view of St. Malo’s castle and beyond:
La Terrasse – with its seaside atmosphere facing St. Malo Bay, outside the city walls. www.thalassotherapie.com/restaurants
Bar de L’Univers – facing the castle and ramparts facing the square. www.hotel-univers-saintmalo.com